The Tree of Life

Today we’re looking at Genesis 2.4-17, the second creation narrative. Specifically I want to meditate on the tree of life God placed in the center of the garden. I would like to spend some time thinking about how our life comes from outside us; what it means that we are not the center, that life is something we receive.  I want to call into question the idea that we are self-determining, individuals who make choices based on objective data; that there are some people who make good choices and some who make bad ones. Over the course of the next two weeks we will look at these trees mentioned in this passage, and the food God gives in them. Eating, in fact, is a good metaphor because life is something we ingest.

One day I had coffee with a pastor in Nashville. He was a somewhat high profile guy. In the course of our conversation I asked him how he justified driving a BMW. Rather than justify himself he said, “Like father like son.”

My dad had served on the board of this church when I was much younger. He fought against spending money on a steeple in hopes that the church might use the money to minister to the people in the housing project across the street.

I asked my question with conviction, but that was an interesting moment for me. (It was certainly a clever avoidance tactic on his part.) I realized my thoughts are not my own, in that they didn’t originate with me. It’s possible that I believed what I was asking because the thoughts were right. I might have because I’m my dad’s son.

Just this week, Ben, Heath and I were talking about music. Heath made a comment about British music being a major influence on American music. Even people who don’t like the Beatles recognize their influence. Ben was quick to say, though, that Beale Street, the home of the blues, influenced the Beatles and all British rock and roll.

Listen to any great musician or artist, and they will spend a lot of time talking about their inheritance, those that have gone before them. They have a deep sense of where they came from, those to whom they are deeply indebted. They couldn’t be who they are as artists, not to mention “great” artists, except for a serious acknowledgement of their dependency on those who went before them.

All of life is that way. That is what the Tree of Life represents. We are told in this creation story that we had nothing to do with creating ourselves nor do we have the capability of sustaining ourselves. You know what’s at our center that reminds us of our dependency? Our belly button. Our bodies are marked by dependency, a small scar that won’t let us forget our need for other people to stay alive.

When the umbilical cord is cut, we don’t cease to be dependent. We depend upon others for our food, and even if we grow our own food we are still dependent upon the sun, rain, soil and seed. Then, the fact that we need the food itself in order to survive indicates our dependency upon things outside of us to stay alive.

That’s not just true for our physical needs. Intellectually, emotionally and otherwise, it’s true too. I learned from my dad to see the world a certain way.

Our dependency can make us vulnerable, too, right? Unfortunately, we aren’t always fed good things. My friend, Chris, and I ate at a local all-you-can-eat breakfast bar in Townsend a couple of years ago. It was a hole in the wall joint that people raved about. We had to go there they said. To this day, I don’t know why. It was awful. It’s one thing for food to be greasy, to be cooked in all natural ingredients even if those ingredients are incredibly fattening. It’s another thing for it to go out of its way to be unhealthy. This food was saturated in its own fat. If it wasn’t highly processed and shipped in a can, it was all but a lard-flavored Jell-O mold incasing your standard breakfast items. My heart hurt looking at it.

Chris and I laughed about it and made due until our breakfast took a very sad turn. An extremely obese family left the restaurant midway through our meal. With them was about a 12 to 13-year-old boy who was morbidly overweight. And morbid is the right word. His family was slowly killing him. I was so saddened by this sight mainly because I knew this wasn’t that boy’s choice. His family informed his definition of “eat” and “food”. He didn’t know any better.

As Americans we’ve inherited some bad “dietary habits.” One ironic inheritance is that we’re not inheritors. That is, we’ve inherited the idea that we are self-determining, autonomous, individuals. We are told from a very young age that we can be anything we “put our mind to.” We are told, “be yourself” as though that were self-evident. We are told we have free choice, that our decisions are made in a vacuum, that objectivity is a possibility. That is, that we can look at all the options and choose what’s best for us. And who’s the authority on what’s best? Me. It’s my body and no one has the right to say what I do with what’s mine. We’ve inherited the notion that I can make those choices without regard for the consequences, the affect they may have on me and, probably more so, on others.

We’ve inherited individualism (which is distinct from individuality) that is completely self-referencing. “I’m doing it because it seems right to me to do, and as long as I have the wherewithal to do it, I don’t need anyone’s approval or permission. Frankly I don’t need anyone. Because I’ve been told that I shouldn’t need anyone. That’s when I’ll know I’m a success – when I’ve become self-sufficient, when I’m no longer a burden on anyone else.”

We see this all over the place – our politics, our architecture. One critique of post-modern architecture is that it’s completely self-referencing. It lacks continuity with its context and history. It seems to say, “I’m the point. You don’t need to know what it means or why. I just am.” (I remember another time I heard someone say, “I am.” Exodus 3, perhaps?)

Sadly, we see this in the church too. The church can do a bad job, too, of living in reality. We are fraught with fracture. We have inherited a very disjointed history, particularly as Protestants. It’s in our name! We protest. To complicate matters further we’re individualistic, nobody-tells-me-what-to-do-with-me-and-mine, American Protestants.

One indicative phrase we’ve inherited that needs some rethinking is our “personal relationship with Jesus.” Very quickly, I will not suggest that God isn’t personal. No. We can’t read today’s passage from Genesis, not to mention to entirety of Scripture, and say anything close. “God formed man from the dust” like a potter with his clay. God breathed life into him. Think about administering CPR. That’s pretty personal.

I’m talking about the notion of a personal God that suggests that each individual is the authority on who God is, and who they are in light of that understanding. I’m talking about the kind of personal relationship that sees my interpretation of Scripture as the pure, right and truest.

Jason Johansen and I were talking about the reemergence of Lectio Divina the other day. Lectio Divina, literally “divine reading,” is a way of reading Scripture whereby individuals read a very short passage, prayerfully listen and offer what he or she thinks God might be telling them through the passage. Jason made a great point when he asked, “Have you been in a group where someone ever questioned what another person thinks they heard?” Of course, I hadn’t, and I wondered what it would be like if someone simply called another person out, “No, God didn’t say that.” What if someone did say something crazy? Wouldn’t you want to tell them, for their sake?

I’m against a personal relationship that says, “I don’t need anyone to tell me who God is, who I am or how to interpret Scripture.” It’s isolating, and what I’ve found is while Jesus is mentioned as the one with whom I’m in a relationship, it is actually me who is glorified. I don’t need to listen to anyone because I’m right about who God is, who I am and what the church should be. I’m against any notion of a personal relationship with Jesus that is devoid of personal relationships with people. I’m against a personal relationship with Jesus in which the person is supposedly submitted to his lordship if he or she isn’t in submission to anyone else.

The truth is we are not the authority on life. Our life – everything from our basic sustenance to our identity – comes from outside us. God is at the center. God is our life. Jesus knew well what that meant when, in Matthew four, he resists the devil saying, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the Father.” How do we eat that bread? How has God given us his word that we may eat it?

We said with Psalm 32 earlier, “Let everyone offer prayer to you when you may be found.” When is God found? Jesus tells us when two or three are gathered there he is in our midst. We saw a couple of weeks ago in Genesis 1.28 that humans are created in God’s image in community, as male and female. Paul tells us that we are Christ’s body of which Christ is the head. Christ invites us to the table where he gives his flesh and blood. God is found in his church. Is that the only place God can be found? No, but we have no hope of recognizing him anywhere else until we become acquainted with the way God has chosen to reveal himself to the world. We are like that boy having grown up with some serious dietary issues. The good news is we can learn about real food and real drink by gathering with God’s people, the Church.

This is one way we can remember our dependency, that our life comes from outside us. We can submit ourselves to this group of people. We can bring what we think we’re learning about God and ourselves and offer to this community. We can be open to being challenged. Why? Because it’s not vital that we be right or get our way. Our life comes from God not being right.

We have all sorts of reasons to think this is a terrible idea though, right? We’d have to give up so much. We’d have to give up our idea that we’re always right. We’d have to give up our impatience when we are right, but things are changing fast enough. We’d have to give up our mistrust of people who’ve hurt us before.

I promise this is the better way. Because this community is going to get it right this time? No. It’s the better way because if nothing else even (and maybe especially) the Church’s brokenness reminds us that the Church is not God. It is God’s bride, but it’s not God.

I read a little Church history this week about the English Reformation. Mary, Queen of Scots, was called Bloody Mary because she killed thousands of Christians for failing to declare loyalty to the Catholic Church. These Protestants were calling for much needed reforms, and their failure to recant meant their death. Of course, it’s only now that we call them martyrdoms rather than murders. They have proven faithful now. However, can we even imagine doing something like that now? What would we be willing to die for? Do we know what they knew back then? That even their submission to a corrupt authority, which will murder them, is an expression of trust in God to take care of his world. Could we say with them, “I don’t need to live in order to prove God is alive and in control.”

Perhaps sticking around with the threat of death and enduring is actually a stronger witness to the life God gives us rather than setting out in search of greener grass elsewhere.

In America this becomes our temptation. The church has no real authority over us. If we don’t like what we hear we can go somewhere else. If we have enough people and resources we can even start our own church, and we wouldn’t have to ask anybody for permission. We could do things our way, the “right” way. Who needs a bishop? Who needs the Anglican Church? Who needs Apostles?

The truth is, while we have that choice, it’s really no choice. That’s like saying, “Would you like filet or a pile of rat poison?” I guess, technically, it’s a choice, but the choice is really between life and death. Often times we act like saying we’re going to do things our way is like choosing rib eye over filet. It’s just our theological preference. In fact, to constantly be at the beck and call of our own bidding, at the mercy of our particular fancy or whim or fad may be a preference, but it’s a preference for another god, a god who looks a lot like myself, a god who is not at the center, a god who is not life.

God has given us our life. God is our life. We may have inherited a whole host of bad dietary habits, but God has made possible another inheritance. We have the awesome privilege of being called sons and daughters of God. Let us submit to one another as each of us submits to Christ. As we take him in week in and week out our bodies, minds and language will begin to reflect those who have life, those who are full of joy and peace, those to whom Jesus has come and now have life abundant.


About this entry